Directors: Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache (UK release 21 Sept)
Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominik (21 Sept)
Director: Léos Carax (28 Sept)
Director: Christian Petzold (28 Sept)
Untouchable - aka Intouchable and The Intouchables - is a culture-clash comedy from France’s writing/directing duo Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache. By far the pair’s biggest hit to date, it achieved record takings at Gallic box-offices earlier this year, and – attacked in some quarters as relying on racial stereotypes and hailed in others as signifying an optimistic new post-Sarkozy era – sparked a national discourse on issues of class and race.
Already snapped up for a Stateside remake, it stars Tell No One‘s François Cluzet and relative newcomer Omar Sy as an emotionally-repressed paraplegic millionaire and the Senegal-born car-thief from the banlieue who becomes his unorthodox carer. Predictable, calculated, corny and undeniably effective, this based-on-a-true-story (-ish) bromance shamelessly combines The King’s Speech and Driving Miss Daisy – with a bit of Trading Places chucked in – as the two men forge an unlikely and mutually beneficial friendship.
Sy, who won the César for Best Actor (beating The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin) at the Césars, makes the most of a star-making role – not before time, France has finally found a black leading-man – while wily Cluzet knows how to navigate the treacherous line between sympathy and pity. The pair make for a genial couple of co-leads in a movie which should really be playing multiplexes but whose subtitles dictate arthouse play.
The reverse is true for Killing Them Softly, whose ads imply an action-packed crime-thriller but which – despite a couple of strikingly violent interludes – is actually a talky black comedy with socio-economic pretensions. Remarkably, it’s only the second movie based on work by Boston’s grimy-noir king George V Higgins: this adaptation (of Cogan’s Trade) nods respectfully back to predecessor The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which featured a magnificent Robert Mitchum and bone-chillingly bleak ‘Beantown’ locations.
A retro vibe saturates the new picture, a twisty tale of hitmen and their untrustworthy employers which reunites Brad Pitt with his Australian Assassination of Jesse James director Andrew Dominik. But while Louisiana locations passably pass for post-industrial Massachusetts, there’s no substitute for the real thing and this isn’t the only area where Killing Them Softly exudes a slight but inescapable ersatz quality.
It’s as though Pitt and pals, after the heavyweight exertions of Jesse James, are blowing off some steam with a self-consciously grubby exercise in tough-guy posturing. Saving grace: James Gandolfini’s irresistibly repellent turn as a sleazy, skirt-chasing slob, the Sopranos star revelling in profanity-studded monologues that deserve to yield an overdue first Oscar nomination.
Updating the Higgins novel to 2008 (opening credits feature a speech by ‘Senator’ Obama, audaciously sliced into slivers of disorienting audio) Dominik heavy-handedly signals his topical intent by having every television tuned to news of the unfolding financial crisis – organised crime is, we see, not immune to the vicissitudes of global economics.
But belabouring a theme isn’t the same as exploring it, and the startlingly abrupt ending leaves an impression of meaty issues chewed but undigested. Someone should also mention to Dominik that setting a slow-motion shootout to the strains of 1950s hit ‘Love Letters’ will only work once the world has collectively forgotten David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
One of two self-consciously gritty, star-studded and blood-spattered US-set book-adaptations by Australian directors to premiere in competition at Cannes this year, Killing Them Softly - like John Hillcoat’s Lawless – was always a longshot to impress Nanni Moretti’s jury and duly left the Croisette empty-handed.
A much more surprising ‘snubbee’, however, was French enfant terrible Léos Carax’s return to the fray after a 13-year absence with the berserk, critically-lauded Holy Motors. Elfin star Denis Lavant was reckoned a safe bet for Best Actor, the picture’s episodic structure providing the Beau Travail actor with a rare opportunity to display his capacity for physical transformation.
As the mysterious ‘Monsieur Oscar’, Lavant adopts various guises as he’s driven around the city by an elegant chauffeur (Eyes Without a Face veteran Edith Scob), fulfilling bizarre ‘appointments’ that involve cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue.
But this is one instance of the jury proving more astute than the critics as, Lavant’s protean turn(s) notwithstanding Holy Motors is a strangely flat enterprise from start to finish, with the exception of a stirring entr’acte in which Lavant and pals perform a rousing, accordion-heavy musical number while caroming around a church.
Even this astonishing sequence dribbles away, however, characteristic of an absurdist jeu d’esprit that feels chucked together as an elaborate lark. Carax, who looked like emerging as the key French director of his generation with 1991′s Les Amants de Pont Neuf, clearly retains his wayward spark, but talk of a fully-fledged comeback is on this evidence somewhat premature.
In the 13 years since Carax’s last feature Pola X, Germany’s Christian Petzold has by contrast delivered eight full-length works of controlled maturity, moving smoothly between cinema and TV, establishing himself as his country’s most accomplished, influential and consistent filmmaker. Like novelist Patricia Highsmith, Petzold is a “poet of apprehension,” crafting low-key, compelling psychological dramas in which intricately-drawn characters operate within subtly drawn social, cultural and geographical backgrounds.
Despite his eminence and acclaim, Petzold has never achieved the profile he deserves in this country – and almost exactly five years after Yella, his new picture Barbara arrives as only his second UK-distributed film, soon after being selected as Germany’s foreign-language Oscar submission (recent form suggests it has a 60% chance of making the final five.)
Again starring his frequent collaborator and muse Nina Hoss, Barbara takes place close to the Baltic Sea coast of East Germany in the late summer of 1980, and pivots on the eponymous heroine’s dilemma of whether to stay working as a doctor in the repressive, totalitarian GDR or flee to the west with her well-heeled boyfriend.
“You won’t need to work,” he assures her – thus showing how much he misjudges her priorities and preferences: as feminists such as Christa Wolf controversially asserted, there were positives and negatives for women either side of the Iron Curtain. And whereas Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others painted a nightmarish picture of GDR life, Barbara attempts something much more challenging and provocative: for the story to work, he has to make staying put a viable and even attractive option.
Making Barbara a health-care professional is crucial in this regard, as she’s patently motivated by concern for her fellow citizens – in a society where medical technology lags far behind the advances of the west . Adding further romantic complications is the presence of hunky colleague André (Ronald Zehrfeld), so that Barbara’s choice becomes thornily entangles the personal, the professional and political. It’s a potentially Mills & Boon-type touch but, one which, rather like the melodramatic, coincidence-reliant finale, Petzold’s clinical precision allows him to transcend.
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL REPORT, PART ONE
The 69th edition of the world’s oldest film-festival concluded in Venice on September 8th amid on-stage chaos – two trophies were mixed up; the hefty, glittering Silver Lion for Best Director was dropped to the floor amid the confusion – and off-stage controversy.
The latter revolved around deafening whispers that Michael Mann’s nine-strong jury had wanted to give several top awards – including the Golden Lion – to Paul Thomas Anderson’s grand Scientology-themed folly The Master (to be reviewed here in November) but as this was against the festival rules they ended up bestowing the top prize to Kim Ki-Duk’s “comeback” Pietà instead.
As usual in such situations, those who know aren’t saying and those who say aren’t knowing. But the flap obscured suspicions that this was a so-so year at best on the Lido – that long, affluent sandbank of an island off Venice itself where the festival is held – and that the Competition section lacked the proper strength in depth.
Here’s our guide to the dozen most accomplished new movies to premiere at this 80-year-old event, with Competition entries marked with an asterisk. The list is alphabetical, but as a rough rule of thumb the longer the description, the more worthwhile the picture in question.
Fill the Void.* Perhaps the pick of the 18-film Competition, this quietly promising debut from writer-director Rama Burshtein is selected for the London Film Festival. The New Yorker married into an ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism and her Israeli-produced film illuminates the community from within. Hadas Yaron rightly took Venice’s Best Actress prize for her performance as a teenager faced with a horrendous dilemma.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Sophie Huber’s Swiss documentary provides an overdue and very personal portrait of the 86-year-old Hollywood legend, a character-actor par excellence who showed with Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas that he’s more than just an expert supporting player. A private, withdrawn individual, Stanton emerges as an unlikely lothario and no mean lo-fi warbler.
A Hijacking. Showing at LFF (October 18, 20, 21) Tobias Lindholm’s coolly gripping Danish drama alternates between a cargo-ship in the Indian Ocean whose seven-man crew are held hostage by Somali Pirates, and the head-office of the vessel’s owners in Copenhagen. Lindholm’s writing credits include TV smash Borgen, Thomas Vinterberg’s Cannes-garlanded The Hunt and 2010′s fine prison-pic R (aka A Prophet for grown-ups) which he also co-directed.
Lotus. Newcomer Liu Shu delivers a schematic but believably persuasive snapshot of modern China, tracing the misfortunes of a pretty, free-spirited young school-teacher whose idealism brings her into conflict with her exam-obsessed employers. Part Looking For Mr Goodbar, part Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lotus features what must be one of the most depressing “happy” endings in recent movies.
Me Too. Latest in a remarkable run of superb cinema from older Russian directors, Me Too is a savagely irreverent and often hilarious riff on Tarkovsky’s revered Stalker from the maverick’s maverick Alexey Balabanov. An uncompromisingly blunt road-movie populated by thugs, prostitutes and vodka-chugging ne’er-do-wells, this unruly combo of social realism and madcap metaphysics dwarfed everything else at the Lido this year in terms of sheer cinematic chutzpah. In a word: masterpiece.
Pietà.* After a few years wandering the experimental-cinema “wilderness,” South Korea’s most successful arthouse export returns to more accessibly conventional fare with this dark, violent, pretentiously-titled thriller about a brutal gangster gradually redeemed by the maternal attentions of an older lady – who may or may not be his long-lost parent. Competently handled genre fare, but surely a flukey Golden Lion winner.
A Special Day.* Italian contenders for the Lion are usually dire affairs, so the low-key charms of Francesca Comencini’s two-handed, socially-aware romance came as a particularly pleasant eleventh-hour surprise. Attractive young leads Filippo Scicchitano and Giulia Valentini show signs of star quality as they bicker and bond around various scenic and not-so-alluring corners of Rome and its suburbs.
Spring Breakers.* A quartet of high-schoolers head to Florida in search of teenage kicks, their hedonistic adventures rapidly taking a ‘Pussy Riot’ turn into grrrl-power ultra-violence. This likeably demented, combination of Miami Vice, Magic Mike and Project X - the latest zeitgeist-surfing splurk of self-indulgence from ex-wunderkind Harmony Korine – was for many the Lido’s primary guilty pleasure.
Stories We Tell. Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) chronicles her own complicated immediate family history – and even investigates her own parentage – in this teasingly ambiguous (quasi-) documentary. A classy, immaculately-crafted and thought-provoking bit of first-person detective work, it was a rare example of a Venice 2012 premiere that garnered near-universal critical approval. As was…
Three Sisters. A grimly clear-eyed, 153-minute dispatch from ‘hidden’ China: the hilly farmland of Yunnan province in the country’s south, which could plausibly be twinned with the moors from Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. And as little seems to have changed here since the Brontës’ era, Wang Bing’s documentary thus offers travel through time as well as space.
To The Wonder.* Terrence Malick’s now-trademark combination of breathtaking visuals, breathily gnomic voice-over and impressionistic editing skirts self-parody in this elliptical, God-bothering exploration of love and loss, arriving only two years after Palme-winning The Tree of Life. Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem gamely lend their presences to 2012′s most expensive and exquisite piece of cinematic experimenta.
The Triplet. Vincenzo Marra is probably the best Italian director you’ve never heard of, his international profile hardly boosted by the fact that since 2007′s psychological thriller Rush Hour he’s stuck to documentaries. His latest glimpse into an obscure corner of his home-town Naples takes us into the city’s Secondiglia penitentiary, home of charismatic, articulate and immaculately fastidious armed-robber Raffaele. Captivating stuff.
12th September 2012
written for Tribune magazine